BY ANNE STANTON
TRAVERSE CITY — Northwestern Michigan College is rolling out a new set of degrees in the field of remote-control robotics, an area of study that is often rewarded with lucrative salaries.
"We are providing a very lean educational path to high-demand, high-skill, high-wage jobs," said Keith Kelly, who teaches students how to program and maintain computerized robots.
Starting salaries in those fields start at $60,000 and reach $100,000 or more within a few years, he said.
Students can sign up now for the 50 or so slots in the associate degree programs that will teach students how to use and maintain robots that explore water, land or air. The specialties are grouped under a new Engineering Technology degree that will be offered this fall, said Ed Bailey, director of NMC's technical division.
Kelly, Bailey and two other robotics instructors recently gathered in a cavernous room at the Parsons Stulen Building where they proudly displayed several unmanned robots.
Bailey said no other community college is offering all three specializations. NMC has the advantage because it's uniquely situated on a harbor and near an airport. Students also have access to a robotics laboratory and research vessels, all necessary assets.
NMC uses the Yuba Airport, which has special Federal Aviation Administration permission for drone maneuvers, said Tony Sauerbrey, who teaches unmanned aerial systems.
Drones likely will be used for a wide range of civilian applications, such as locating wildfires, search and rescues, and crop inspections. Civilian uses are pending FAA approval, which is expected in the next two years, Sauerbrey said.
Sauerbrey said opportunities lie mostly with drone manufacturers hiring for their research and development divisions. In fact, a former student left in mid-semester for a high-paying job and has since recruited other NMC students.
NMC has offered classes in unmanned aerial and marine robotics for the last several years, but will offer technology-specific associate's degrees for the first time this fall.
NMC already earned international recognition for its underwater marine robotics endeavors.
Last year, it drew people from five continents to a professional development conference, said Hans VanSumeren, who teaches marine robotics.
Manufacturers loan about $1 million worth of robot-operated marine vehicles annually, and are eager to ensure students are up to speed on the latest technology, VanSumeren said.
The college set its sights on becoming a nationally recognized Unmanned Systems and Robotics Center.
Last October, it applied for a $300,000 National Science Foundation grant. If approved, grant money will fund more instructors, student recruitment, curriculum development, and new robotics equipment, Bailey said.
In the near term, the program will open its robotics laboratory to the public, and offer a class for non-students to create their own remote control robots, Bailey said.